The documentary has been on YouTube since late 2021, and recounts the story of one the most universally revered and beloved jazz musicians, Jack Teagarden. Importantly, this documentary work on Big Tea — now so easily and freely available — would absolutely not exist without the work of the late Joe Showler*, the Canadian record collector who exhaustively documented nearly every day of Teagarden’s career.
Almost any English teacher can be counted on to make some sort of a handout on when to use a comma. It’s sort of that same way with brass players and exercise books, going back — at least — to Arbans famous method.
Both comma handouts and brass exercise books have this in common: despite some points of controversy, you end up with lots of similar material and advice. And yet, despite all that, there’s still the occasional insight and innovation.
In 1936, Jack Teagarden, the jazz trombonist from Vernon, Texas, known for his ability to play a whole lot of trombone in the first 4 positions, came out with his High Tone Studies for Trombone, a short treatise of 51 exercises designed to help get the player up to a high D. The book is currently available on Apple’s iBooks, and also at Cherry Classics Music. As CCM’s blurb says, “it is obvious that Teagarden had put a lot of thought into his technique.” A bit of classic good advice from the book:
Do not force or strain at any time. Rest frequently.
In October of 1958, Jack Teagarden and his working band undertook a tour of the near east for the U.S. State Department. The trip covered eighteen countries and 17,000 miles, winding up in January of 1959. The King of Thailand, himself a saxophonist and composer, was happy to see Teagarden, someone whose music he had only enjoyed on recordings up until that time. Naturally, the King decreed a jam session at his palace — it went on for 6 hours by Teagarden’s own account. “You tell your friend Eisenhower that you’re the finest thing he’s ever sent us,” the King said.
Of one concert stop, Teagarden later remembered:
“We played a kind of fair in Laos before about two thousand people, and they just stood there for two hours, with their arms folded, the women with babies on their backs. They didn’t clap, they didn’t say anything. But they didn’t move, either. They stayed until the last note.”
It was a taxing tour for the musicians involved. Because of the ambassadorial mission, the band had to be available for unscheduled concerts and performances, which added to the expected fatigue. In Afghanistan, there was a scarcity of pianos. Most of the band’s members got the flu. Jack’s bassist, Stan Puls, got appendicitis and had to be taken off the itinerary. He was replaced by Lee Ivory, a very capable bassist as well as an active duty serviceman (and apparently a reporter for Stars and Stripes).
In the amazing kinescope shown here, we pick up the band near the end of its tour in Japan. Teagarden looks gaunt — he had contracted uremia during this leg — but is otherwise in good musical form, as he always seemed to be. This TV-film is incomplete — some of the reels were apparently loaned out and never returned. A Japanese band plays and grapples (well) with the style that Teagarden and company tossed off without seeming to try. Jack performs with a studio orchestra next; included are Stars Fell on Alabama, Diane, Peg O’ My Heart, and Indiana. This studio orchestra format was becoming more common in Jack’s later recordings for Capitol Records. The working band returns for When the Saints Go Marching In.
Jack Teagarden’s working band, shown in the film:
Max Kaminsky, trumpet
Jerry Fuller, clarinet
Don Ewell, piano
Lee Ivory, bass
Ronnie Greb, drums
In July of 1959, Jack recorded the King of Thailand’s tune, When for Roulette Records.
Teagarden later said of the trip’s mission, “All the music I’ve played has finally paid off. I feel that I did some good for America.”
Today, August 20, is Jack Teagarden’s birthday. In honor of that anniversary, I’m reposting a bullet-point version of Jack Tegarden’s career. I wrote this some time ago, although I’ve revised it since. Sure, there’s a wikipedia article, but why read that when you can get the information directly from one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject?
Originally named Weldon Leo, Jack Teagarden was born in Vernon, Texas, on August 20, 1905.
Teagarden began studying music early in life. First came piano, then peckhorn. (The peckhorn looks like a small baritone horn, pitched in Eb rather than Bb.) Jack took up the trombone at the age of eight, and was reportedly proficient by the time he was eleven.
The Teagarden family household was a musical one, mostly because of the influence of Jack’s mother, although Jack’s father did play (apparently weak) cornet in the town band. As the family grew, each of Jack’s new siblings took up a different instrument: Younger brother Charlie played trumpet, sister Norma became a pianist, and the youngest brother, “Cubby,” played the drums.
Jack had perfect pitch and could, as sister Norma remembered, “Call off the overtones in a thunderclap.”
Jack discovered his own way of playing trombone, making use of a flexible embouchure and alternate positions to get around the inherent clumsiness of the trombone slide. This general way of “getting around the horn” influenced many contemporaries of Jack, as well as future jazz trombonists such as Carl Fontana. The trombone sound Jack began to develop has often been described as a “jug tone,” slightly nasal and hoarse.
While still a teenager, Jack began gigging around the Southwest with “barnstorming” bands, including Doc Ross’s “Jazz Bandits” and a band run by the famous but reclusive pianist Peck Kelley. Still unrecorded, Jack arrived in New York in 1927 with Doc Ross.
While with Kelley, Jack created a way of playing the slide alone with a water glass in place of the bell. The technique, which changed all the usual slide positions, created a muted and earthy sound that Teagarden used expressively on a variety of tunes, especially the blues. One of the best examples of this amazing slide-with-glass playing is St. James Infirmary, from a 1947 concert recorded at New York City’s Town Hall.
Jack became known as a masterful blues trombonist, and by his own account he became familiar with the sound of “blue notes” by listening to the African American holy-roller-tent-revival meetings that took place near his childhood home in Vernon.
Louis Armstrong became a musical hero early on when Jack discovered the trumpeter’s records. Supposedly, Jack and trumpeter Wingy Manone buried a copy of Armstrong’s Oriental Strut in the Southwestern desert, hoping the record would become petrified for the benefit of future generations. Later, Teagarden would go on to perform with Armstrong many times.
Jack first recorded with Louis Armstrong in 1929 — one of the earliest racially mixed sessions. The tune was a blues, Knockin’ a Jug.
Jack’s singing was just as beguiling as his trombone playing to many. Like his trombone sound, his voice had a distinctive timbre, “Between croon and moan,” as critic Nat Hentoff described it.
Teagarden enjoyed tinkering with mechanical things. He designed mutes and mouthpieces, occasionally taking a lathe on the road with him. He owned and worked on two Stanley Steamers during his life, although one was stolen when he let a prospective buyer take it for a test drive.
Teagarden supposedly originated the use of Ponds cold cream as a lubricant on trombone slides.
During his career, Teagarden recorded prolifically, and today you’ll find many compilations featuring “Big Tea.” If you’re looking for a good cross-section of Jack’s entire discography, this boxed set is a good one. The Complete Fifties Studio Recordings, with Bobby Hackett, are also not to be missed. For downloadable music, Jack Teagarden Greatest Hits is a great value.
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